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If you think Twitter doesn’t break news, you’re living in a dream world

Written on:February 29, 2012
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One of the signs of how much Twitter and other social tools are disrupting media are the strenuous arguments about how they aren’t doing this at all — including repeated assertions that “Twitter doesn’t break news.” In the latest example of the genre, a writer in the American Journalism Review makes the case that Twitter didn’t break the news about recent events such as Whitney Houston’s death or the assassination of Osama bin Laden, because those events didn’t actually become “news” until they were confirmed by mainstream sources. This kind of thinking betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about how news works now.

In the piece, Barb Palser — who works for a website-management company called Internet Broadcasting and is the American Journalism Review‘s new-media columnist — takes issue with stories that have been written by outlets like Mashable about how Twitter broke the news of singer Whitney Houston’s death hours before the mainstream press found out about it. She notes that a timeline of Twitter data around that event shows that there wasn’t much activity until the Associated Press announced the news:

While nearly an hour passed between the first known mention of Houston’s death and the AP’s report, Twitter’s timeline clearly shows that the story flatlined until the AP tweet. It was that properly attributed post by a credible news organization with a broad following that broke through the noise.

While the AP report may have sparked a lot more attention and confirmed the news for many on Twitter, it’s a mistake to see what happened before that as just “noise.” It’s true — as Palser and others have noted — that Twitter routinely experiences waves of fake death reports about celebrities, and other so-called news reports that later turn out not to be true. But that doesn’t change the fact that the network has become a source of news for growing numbers of people, and in most cases it is just as fast to correct mistaken reports as the mainstream press, if not faster.

Traditional media are no longer the only source of news

Palser is right when she says that some of the news that comes through Twitter occurs via links from mainstream sources such as the NYT or the AP, and she’s also right to suggest that these social tools are a powerful force that traditional news organizations should be making use of — instead of telling their employees not to post news to Twitter, as outlets like Sky News and Associated Press have done recently. But the reality is that what Om calls the “democratization of distribution” provided by the web and social media means news can come from anywhere, at any time, and from a wide variety of sources.

In many cases, those sources will be individuals who are actually involved in the news — whether they are dissidents in Syria video-taping the revolution there and uploading it to YouTube, or Rupert Murdoch posting his thoughts to Twitter. This is what New York Times media writer Brian Stelter means when he talks about “sources going direct,” an idea that pioneering blogger Dave Winer was one of the first to put into words. If someone wants to break the news about their sports career ending or the fact that U.S. helicopters are shelling a notorious terrorist’s family compound, they have the tools to do that.

It’s tempting for mainstream media players to see news as something that only occurs when they report it. But events like the recent dust-up between the Wall Street Journal and blogger MG Siegler over some Apple news reinforce how dated that concept is. It’s true that for possibly a majority of readers, the news became fact when the Journal reported it — but for many, having Siegler report it was enough, because they trust him as a source of Apple news. In the same way, many people believed that Osama bin Laden was dead hours before CNN reported it because Brian Stelter (a NYT writer many people trust) retweeted a message from what appeared to be a credible source.

This is what the phrase “news as a process” means. Instead of being an artifact that the traditional media labor over and then punch out from an assembly line, it is almost a living thing that moves from rumor to fact gradually, with many different inputs — some of which may come from mainstream sources, and some of which may not. In the end, it is about the trust that readers have in those sources, and what has changed forever is that traditional media are no longer the only ones who are able to earn that trust.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and jphilipg.

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